In Turkey, Kurd youths arm themselves with firebombs, guns, pickaxes

Hidden in a dank alley, Hassan and his companions, young ethnic Kurds, clutched homemade firebombs and pump-action shotguns, with red bandannas covering their faces and white surgical gloves on their hands.

"The government has said no to peace," said Hassan, 17, his eyes peeking through the slit of his scarf. "They are attacking us with the full power of the Turkish state."

A spate of combat in southeast Turkey is unraveling three years of strained peace talks between Ankara and Kurdish militants, who waged a three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Many fear the clock is being turned back to the dark days of the 1990s.

While the Turkish military strikes at mountain strongholds of the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, members of the movement's youth wing are taking the battle to the streets.

A short distance from where Hassan crouched — just beyond makeshift barricades of wood and sacks of charcoal — armored military vehicles roared past shuttered shops along the mostly deserted streets of Silvan.

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Single gunshots were heard intermittently.

"They have snipers," Hassan said. "But we will defend our homes and our land."

For days, Turkish security personnel have tried to enter the southeast city's Mescit neighborhood, driven back by boys and girls using sophisticated arms as well as makeshift weapons. The previous night, young Kurds attacked police vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades, wounding two officers.

"We do not want this situation," Hassan said. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "is attacking us because we took his power away during the election."

In June, electoral inroads by a pro-Kurd party deprived Erdogan's ruling party of its parliamentary majority. The balloting also derailed the president's ambition to vest far greater authority in his own executive branch.

Critics charge that the campaign of military strikes against Kurdish militants is a bid to bolster Erdogan's popularity amid the growing likelihood of early elections.

"This violence actually feels worse than the war in the '90s," said Malik Shateke, a representative of the Kurdish-focused People's Democratic Party, or HDP, in Silvan. "The difference is that the government recently expanded the security forces' powers."

About 40 Turkish security personnel have died in the fighting, which flared after an Islamic State suicide bomber killed more than 30 activists in the frontier town of Suruc last month.

In the fallout from that attack, the PKK — which holds the government responsible for the bombing — has rekindled its insurgency, assassinating police officers in their homes, launching bloody raids on military checkpoints and harassing the authorities with bombs and rockets.

Turkish warplanes, meanwhile, have bombed Kurd positions in the mountains of northern Iraq and the easternmost areas of Turkey, killing hundreds of militants, but also women and children.

Anti-terrorism units have swept through some of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Turkey, arresting more than 1,000 people over the last month, most of them Kurdish activists and radical leftists.

Multiple conflicts flared across the southeast Friday, as anger rose over the death of two Kurdish teenagers in Diyadin, just north of Lake Van near the border with Armenia. Three soldiers were killed in an ambush in Daglica, near the border with Iraq, while searching for militants.

And, in Silvan, tension has steadily grown. Graffiti scrawled onto walls read "Revenge" and "We won't allow a massacre." Residents thump sticks against shops' corrugated iron shutters, causing a deafening racket.

"We won't stop until Erdogan is in Imrali prison," Hassan said, referring to the island penitentiary where Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of the PKK, has been imprisoned since 1999 on treason charges.

Nearby, a young fighter put on a gas mask and grabbed a pickax. Another peeked out at the street, a firebomb at the ready.

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The PKK's youth wing was formed in the early 2000s, but rebranded about three years ago, according to activists. Hassan said the movement had children as young as 7 in its ranks.

Adults telegraph ambivalence about the youth-driven violence. Use of child combatants is banned by international treaties, but many cite years of harsh treatment at the hands of the state.

"Of course we don't want our youths fighting in the streets," said 40-year-old Yuksel Bodakci, who sat on a winding side street, sipping cool water. "But no one mentions that the state has attacked these youths and repressed them from the day they were born."

One teenage girl held a megaphone, her face obscured by a scarf in Kurdish colors, a Kalashnikov rifle slung across her shoulder. She said she joined the young fighters because women are "treated like slaves in this country."

"I live in this city and it belongs to women, not just men," she said, refusing to be named for fear of arrest and echoing the rhetoric employed by older female fighters in the PKK. "The fight against the Turkish state is only part of our struggle."

As night fell, gunfights erupted throughout the city and its environs. Explosions boomed, probably rockets fired by Kurdish fighters.

Activists said that the army had attempted to enter the Mescit neighborhood once more, and was repelled by the young paramilitaries. During a period of uneasy quiet late in the night, street lights illuminated Silvan's abandoned ramshackle streets.

Nothing moved. A man's agonized wails broke the silence.

Johnson is a special correspondent.

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